Opinion: The Case For A Pass/Fail Semester

(Photo courtesy of Thomas Cassara '23)

(Photo courtesy of Thomas Cassara ’23)

By Thomas Cassara, Staff Writer

On March 25, 2020, students were given the opportunity to opt into a Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory (S/U) grading scale for the spring semester, where any letter grade of a D- or more would be listed as ‘Satisfactory’ and would not impact a student’s GPA.

This grading option gave many students, myself included, a feeling of peace. The college chose to acknowledge our struggles with the COVID-19 pandemic and granted us a respite from the stress associated with coursework during a national lockdown. Many students ended up choosing to take advantage of this option, highlighting its importance in a moment of such great uncertainty. 

So far, however, we haven’t heard any news about whether or not a similar option will be available to us for our fall semester grades. In a town hall last month, administrators informed parents of their plan to withhold a decision on a pass/fail until late October when they could assess how students were doing amidst the pandemic. 

Let me be clear here—I do understand the college’s reluctancy when it comes to offering pass/fail forgiveness for two semesters in a row. I also think it is fair to wait for the situation to develop before making such a decision. But the extenuating circumstances of the strange times we find ourselves in do call for a greater understanding of the heightened uncertainties and inequity stemming from this pandemic.  

The college has disappointed me in its decision to emphasize following the actions of similar institutions of higher learning. In other words, the administration made it clear that part of the review process would be waiting to see what other colleges and universities (and other peer institutions, specifically) decide in regard to the pass/fail grading option. We should not be bound to the decisions of other schools. We are not Dickinson, Susquehanna, or Franklin & Marshall. We are the students of Gettysburg College and we have our own needs. Given the abrupt nature of the departure of the majority of students from campus this semester and the fact that we are going to be home for significantly longer than we were last semester, it seems only fair that we would be granted the option to take courses pass/fail. I implore the administration to weigh the needs of our students more heavily than it weighs the opinions of other educational institutions when deciding on a matter as important as this. 

The college is also not paying enough attention to the needs of the students by deciding to delay a decision that is certainly going to impact different individuals in a variety of ways. When we attend classes in-person, we are on a relatively even playing field. Students eat in the same dining halls, study in the same academic buildings, and live in similar residence halls. But this relatively even playing field becomes a fantasy when students are required to retreat back to their homes. 

At Gettysburg, we take pride in the diversity of our community. As a result, we should be nothing but prepared to deal with the challenges that stem from the inequities that go along with the move, once again, to remote instruction. Gettysburg College students come from varying socio-economic backgrounds, and experience the hardships of the pandemic in vastly different ways. Some students may suffer from housing and food insecurity or face conflict with immediate family due to their identity. While the college attempted to mitigate the potential for negative impact on students by giving us an option to apply to remain on campus, accommodations could not be met for all students. During times like these, we must support the members of our community who are struggling with financial problems and mental health issues. If we are an institution that serves underprivileged students during a typical semester, we must help them in a moment like this. Thus, giving students the option of taking their classes pass/fail this semester would reflect the kind of community that Gettysburg purports to be. 

I wish to reiterate that, while I do believe the college’s choice to delay the decision about pass/fail is the responsible choice, the administration would be remiss to neglect the collective stress of the student body. We should not have to suffer academically because of factors beyond our control. Offering the pass/fail option for this fall semester is the most equitable decision.

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Author: Thomas Cassara

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1 Comment

  1. Dear Mr. Cassara,
    I would like to commend you for writing such an important article during this tumultuous time. My daughter is a senior at Gettysburg and is finding the online semester challenging physically, mentally and emotionally challenging. The workload and expectations have remained unchanged but reading days have been eliminated which is a much needed break from normal coursework. I am extremely disappointed with how the college is handling the psyche of those students dismissed from campus. There is no social support and it is sorely needed. I attempted to email a staff member associated with family outreach but oddly enough her email has been blocked. Gettysburg is the only college among its peers to send home the majority of the student body in a knee jerk reaction to the conscious decision to behave recklessly and without regard for their fellow students. Gettysburg needs to do better. Thank you!

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